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Presbyterian Church USA

The Presbyterian Church USA — also styled as Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, Presbyterian Church (USA), PCUSA and PC(USA) — is a denomination of Christianity in the United States. Based on a type of Reformed Calvinism, it is the largest Presbyterian body in the nation.

The Presbyterian Church USA was established upon the 1983 merger of the former Presbyterian Church in the United States, a southern branch of American Presbyterianism, and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, a northern branch. The unified body currently counts among its members approximately 2.4 million people organized into 11,260 congregations served by 21,000 ordained ministers.



Main article: Presbyterian church governance

The Presbyterian Church of the USA has four levels of church governement and administration. At the congregational level, the ruling body of an individual church is called the session. The session is made up of the ministers of the church and officers called elders who are elected by the congregation. This body takes care of the basic administration of the local church. There is another group of officers in the local church called deacons. They perform tasks such as caring for the poor and the sick. In some states churches are legally incorporated and members or elders of the church serve as trustees of the corporation.

The next level is the presbytery formed by all the ministers in a regional area together with elders appointed each of the congregations. The presbytery has responsibility of ordaining, approving, removing and transferring ministers between congregations. While the members of the congregation generally elect their own pastor, the presbytery must approve the choice and officially appoint the pastor to the position. However, the congregation may remove their pastor from office if they see fit. The presbytery has authorty over all of the affairs of the congregation and the moderator of the presbytery is elected annually. However, the presbytery may meet when it sees fit and acts as a court of appreal from sessions in individual congregations.

Several presbyteries join together to form a synod. The jurisdiction of the synod is to act as a court of appeal and co-ordinate the work of presbyteries. The synod usually meets annually and elects its moderator annally. Each synod covers at least two states.

The General Assembly is responsible for the affairs of the church and meets annually. It consists of commissioners elected by presbyteries with half of the General Assembly consisting of pastors and half consisting of elders. The General Assembly is responsible for reviewing the work of synods, resolving controversies within the church, is responsible for important issues within the church.

The General Assembly appoints its officers with the Moderator appointed at each Assembly and chairing the rest of the sessions. The Stated Clerk is appointed to serve for a longer term and is responsible for the Office of the General Assembly which conducts the ecclesiastical work of the church. The Office of the General Assembly carries out most of the ecumenical functions and all of the constitutional functions at the Assembly. The General Assembly also elects a General Assembly Council (GAC) consisting of 72 ministers and elders responsible for advising the General Assembly on priorities, programs and strategies and implementing its decisions. The GAC meets three times a year.

The denomination maintains affiliations with 10 seminaries in the United States. These are Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, TX, Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA, Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, NJ, San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Francisco, CA, Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, VA and Charlotte, NC, and University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, IA. Presbyterians originally founded Princeton University.

Church history

Early history to 1801

Presbyterians trace their history to the sixteenth century and the Protestant Reformation. Presbyterian heritage, and much of what they believe, began with the French lawyer John Calvin (1509-1564), whose writings solidified much of the Reformed thinking that came before him. The Presbyterian Church USA traditionally used the Westminster Confession of Faith until 1967 when it was replaced by the Confession of 1967.

Calvin did most of his writing from Geneva, Switzerland. From there, the Reformed movement spread to other parts of Europe. The early Presbyterians in America came from England, Scotland and Ireland. The first American Presbytery was organized at Philadelphia in 1706 and in 1716 this was expanded to a synod.

There were two distinct strands of presbyterianism in the American colonies namely the New England Puritans who preferred presbyterianism and the mid-Atlantic presbyterian churches established in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania catering to Scotch-Irish and English settlers. The Scotch-Irish considered that the church was founded on its doctrine and accordingly wanted unqualified acceptance of the Westminster Confession. In contrast, the Puritans considered that Christian life was the basis of the church, accepted creeds as expressions of the churches faith and wanted the superior church bodies to have only limited and fixed powers.

The differences in opinion came to head in a schism between 1741 and 1758 prompted by the First Great Awakening. During the schism, the New England or pro-revival section called the New Side trebled in size while the Scotch-Irish side called the Old Side actually declined in size. After the reconciliation in 1758, the church experienced growth as many of the hundreds of thousands of Scotch-Irish immigrants who came to the US after 1760 became members. The church expanded westward during this period as a result of this wave of immigration.

There were also smaller branches of the Presbyterian movement established in this period due to splits in Scottish church. As the issues became less important in North America, some of these chruches merged. In 1782, the Reformed Presbyterians and some of the Associate (Seceder) churches merged and there would be further amalgamations in the future.

The first General Assembly was held in Philaedelphia in 1789 to provide for better organisation due to the strains caused by the expansion westward. The Assembly was convened by the Reverend John Witherspoon, the only Christian minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. This was indicative of the active support of Presbyterians for the War of Independence.

Church history 1801-1900

A proposed Plan of Union drawn up with the Congregationalists caused renewed tension between the two tendencies in the church. This tension was gradually worsened by tensions over slavery and theological disputes which arose as a result of the Second Great Awakening. As a result of the continuing tension, there was another schism in 1837. While both churches continued to adopt the name of the Presbyterian Church of the USA, but the predominantly northern church added "New School" to its name while the predominantly southern church was called the "Old School". Both churches continued to grow as the US continued its westward expansion.

The consolidation of the smaller Presbyterian churches continued in 1858 when the Reformed Presbyterians merged with other Secession groups (theologically) to form the United Presbyterian Church of North America. This church was theologically conservative but was also active in the anti-slavery movement and other associated causes.

During the American Civil War, the "Old School" church adopted the name of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of the War. In the South after the war, the minority "New School" merged with the majority "Old School" to form the Presbyterian Church in the United States. A similar process occurred in the north with the majority "New School" joining with the minority "Old School" to form the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. However, reconciliation between the northern and southern branches was still a long way off with both churches continuing to grow.

Church history 1901-today

The early part of the twentieth century saw continued growth in both major sections of the church. It also saw the growth of Fundamentalist Christianity who believed in the written word of the Bible as the fundamental source of the religion as opposed to Modernist Christianity who believed that Christianity needed to be reintepreted in light of modern scientific theories such as evolution.

The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was joined by the majority of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1906. In 1920, it absorbed the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Church . The United Presbyterian Church of North America merged with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1958 to form the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

This sparked a period of ecumenical activism similar to the Second Vatican Council. This culminated in the development of the Confession of 1967 which was the church's first new confession of faith in three centuries. The 170th General Assembly in 1958 authorised a committee to develop a brief contemporary statement of faith. The 177th General Assembly in 1965 considered and amended the draft confession and sent a revised version for general discussion within the church. The 178th General Assembly in 1966 accepted a revised draft and sent it to presbyteries throughout the church for final ratification. As the confession was ratified by more than 90% of all presbyteries, the 178th General Assembly finally adopted it in 1967.

An attempt to reunite the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. with the Presbyterian Church in the United States in the late 1950s failed when the latter church was unwilling to accept centralisation. This reflected its support for local decision making and concern about central organisations having greater power. Ironically, these concerns were similar to those of the Puritans in earlier times.

Attempts at union between the churches were renewed in the 1970s culminating in the merger of the two churches to form the Presbyterian Church (USA) on June 10, 1983. A new national headquarters was established in Louisville, Kentucky in 1988 replacing the headquarters of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA in New York City and the Presbyterian Church in the United States located in Atlanta, Georgia.

Current discussions within the Church

The Presbyterian Church (USA) currently is struggling with a major division over Biblical interpretation, particularly as it relates to homosexuality. Current policy prohibits the ordination of practicing homosexuals; the policy was upheld by a vote of presbyteries in 2002. Practicing homosexuals remain welcome as members, although - at least officially - they can't serve as pastors or serve as elders on the church sessions (the equivalent of a local board of directors). They are also prohibited from becoming deacons.

Several Presbyterian scholars, pastors, and theologians have been heavily involved in the debate over homosexuality, including several from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, such as Robert Gagnon, Susan Nelson, Charles Partee, and Andrew Purves. Mark Achtemeier has also been a vocal participant in the debate.

The Presbyterian Church USA is an organizational member of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which advocates gun control. In June of 2004, the general assembly met in Richmond, Virginia and voted 413-62 to divest itself of companies doing business in or with Israel.

Recent controversies about the role of Christ in salvation

In 2000, the Reverand Dirk Ficca was invited by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program to give the keynote address at the 2000 Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference. In his speech, entitled "Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a Diverse World" he asked "Okay, well if God is at work in our lives whether we're Christian or not, what's the big deal about Jesus?"

Following the controversy which insued, the PCUSA published a statement stating "...regardless, Rev. Ficca speaks for himself and not for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)." Later, in 2003, the General Assembly declared that "there is salvation in none other than Christ."

Divestment from Israel

In March 2002 PCUSA sent a letter to the Israeli government stating, "While we do not condone the acts of violence by certain Palestinian extremists we are appalled that Israel, in response, has continued to punish the entire Palestinian population and its leaders who have been your government's partners in the peace process.";

In June of 2004, the general assembly met in Richmond, Virginia and voted 413-62 to divest itself of companies doing business in or with Israel. Rev. Nile Harper stated "The occupation by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza must end because it is oppressive and destructive for the Palestinian people" in explanation of this action. The church statement noted that "divestment is one of the strategies that U.S. churches used in the 1970s and '80s in a successful campaign to end apartheid in South Africa."

In 2004 the PCUSA sent Samir Makhlouf to speak at the College of Wooster on the recommendation of Fahed Abu-Akel (former General Assembly Moderator). The speaker presented a slide show depicting, among other things, the Star Of David associated with the swastika and materials from a discredited book entitled the "Protocols of the elders of Zion". The protocols, which originated in Russia, were determined by a Russian court in September 2003 to be an anti-semitic forgery.

The president of Wooster, R. Stanton Hales, later issued an apology which stated "Most unfortunately ... Mr. Makhlouf ... made anti-Semitic statements about the state of Israel and about Jewish people based on documents that are widely acknowledged to be forgeries and are a direct statement of bigotry and hatred." He further stated that "Other inaccurate and misleading items were similarly claimed as fact... Nevertheless, some in attendance, including some who departed before the challenge, were left with the impression that the claims were valid and that the College supported the claims. The College most certainly does not...the appearance of speakers whose messages include simple bigotry and hatred supported by intellectual dishonesty is unacceptable."

The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program issued a statement stating "that the denomination's Peacemaking Program, Office for Interfaith Relations and the Office for the Middle East and Europe unequivocally disavow remarks and images reportedly used by Makhlouf. We regret that some in the audience may have been offended." They however did not include any mention of whether they regreted that the statements were made.

In 2004 Dr. Ronald H. Stone, elder at East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, stated "we treasure the precious words of Hizballah and your expression of good will towards the American people." and "relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders" on Hezbollah's Al-Manar satellite television network. He did this in his capacity a 24 member team to the middle east as part of the PCUSA's Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (paid for by the church). The PCUSA has since published a statement where they said his views "do not reflect the official position of the Presbyterian Church."

See also: Confessing Movement, List of Presbyterian Church USA Churches, Presbyterian Church in America, Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

External links

Last updated: 05-12-2005 18:50:47
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04